World Health Organization legitimates burnout

The condition, linked to work habits and environments, has been upgraded to a “syndrome” as it goes global

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published May 29, 2019 12:56PM (EDT)


Burnout, which describes when work-related stress can manifest as prolonged exhaustion resulting in reduced interest and productivity, is becoming a more legitimate condition in the eyes of the World Health Organization.

On Tuesday, WHO announced it is updating its definition of burnout in the new version of the International Classification of Diseases, ICD-11, which will go into effect in January 2022. The update includes calling burnout a "syndrome" which is specifically linked to "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." Burnout was included in the previous version of the disease handbook, used by mental health professionals around the world for purposes of diagnosis, but described it as a "state of vital exhaustion."

According to the new definition, burnout is characterized by the following:

"1) Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out [sic] refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life."

The new definition requires that in order for mental health professionals to diagnose burnout, they must rule out other stress-related disorders, anxiety, and mood disorders first.

Burnout has been a buzzword this year, and the topic of many popular think pieces. Some researchers say it is the most discussed mental health condition, but the least understood.

"Despite the societal importance and extensive use of the term burnout in everyday life, however, there is still heated debate among scientists and practitioners about what burnout actually is, what symptoms are associated with it, and whether or not the burnout syndrome is a distinct mental disorder," researchers stated in the paper "Burnout Research: Emergence and Scientific Investigation of a Contested Diagnosis," published in 2017. "Burnout is still not completely accepted as a mental disorder in its own right in the academic field, especially in clinical psychology and psychiatry, and scientists have repeatedly asked whether burnout is a useful diagnosis or just 'psychobabble.'"

Torsten Voigt, a sociologist in Germany, told NPR this change legitimizes the condition.

"People who feel burnout are finally fully recognized as having a severe issue," he said.

Elaine Cheung, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told NPR:  "There needs to be greater critical discussion on how we can more precisely measure and define this condition."

"I think a lot of people have a lay definition of what burnout may be," she added.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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